Borders, Boundaries & Bridges: Learning with our Neighbours
With a new Minister for Education, Ulsterman Mr Joe McHugh, and growing unease about the unknown consequences of Brexit on the horizon, the time is right to acknowledge the broad scope of education as a pathway for progress that everyone can and should participate in; it’s the moment to make adult and community education in particular the fertile ground from which North, South, East and West can grow together in a direction that ensures everyone is supported through the difficult challenges that lie ahead. In our latest blog Niamh O’Reilly CEO discusses a seminal moment when adult and community education leaders from the Five Nations (5Ns) of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland met at The Borders, Boundaries & Bridges: Learning with our Neighbours Conference on Friday 14th October in Belfast.
Echoing the recent words of Minister McHugh at his first public engagement in the Oireachtas: champions of adult and community education from The 5Ns met to examine “what’s working and not working” and where there are “strengths and weaknesses” within and between each educational landscape. Conference attendees recognised that educational inequality is not an all-island question, it is an all-nations issue. For the first time, the 5Ns were brought together by their shared set of values and beliefs around education as a form of empowerment. Adult and community education within each population represents perhaps the best form of defence at our disposal from the dangerous and damaging divisiveness of today.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, learners on the islands of Ireland and Great Britain have far more in common regarding exclusion from accessing and benefiting from education than they have differences. Indeed, any preoccupation with borders faded fast once conference participants entered into dialogue around how our communities can acquire and share the necessary knowledge and skills needed to fit this new era. Indeed, any preoccupation with borders faded fast once conference participants entered into dialogue around the how our communities can acquire and share the necessary knowledge and skills to fit the new era. Trumping the discourse of the day was how best to now navigate a direct pathway for all learners during what is clearly a very uncertain and complex political, economic and social transition – not least for those who have traditionally been, and continue to face barriers to lifelong learning.
The Borders, Boundaries & Bridges: Learning with our Neighbours Conference was co-hosted by AONTAS with contributions from our closest colleagues:
- The Learning & Work Institute (LWI) of England
- The Learning & Work Institute of Wales
- The Scotland’s Learning Partnership (SLP)
- The Forum for Adult Learning Northern Ireland (FALNI), a voluntary cross-sector coalition of education practitioners
Conference discussions raised the example of how the European Agenda for Adult Learning enables the sharing of best practice within and across jurisdictions. AONTAS’ UK counterpart, the Learning & Work Institute (LWI), developed Impact Forums in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in autumn 2014. The LWI’s sibling organisation in Northern Ireland is the Forum for Adult Learning Northern Ireland (FALNI), a voluntary coalition of practitioners from across relevant sectors. Northern Ireland has no staffed umbrella body with full-time capacity to advocate for people’s rights to participate in quality lifelong learning. With the support of FALNI AONTAS has established excellent relationships with key individuals and organisations across Northern Ireland and has cultivated strong ties with those in adult and community education. Some prime instances of this include:
- Increased knowledge sharing and raising awareness around the important role of community education in empowering all communities, particularly in a post-Brexit and post-EAAL environment; intensifying collaboration in this space will result in establishing a Community Education Network in Northern Ireland with reciprocal dividends for learners and members of the Networks on both sides of the border’
- The editor of The Adult Learner Journal is Rosemary Moreland, Faculty Learning and Teaching Co-ordinator and Senior Lecturer in Community Development at Ulster University
- Cooperation around the Belfast Festival of Learning (running again from 4-10th March 2019) and the Adult Learners' Festival (4-8th March 2019)
- 35 initiatives and local groups from Northern Ireland were nominated for the annual STAR Awards in the last seven years, The STAR Awards have resulted in a variety of all-island activities
- Members based in Northern Ireland have reached an all-time high with individuals and organisations benefiting from AONTAS membership and contributing to the future of lifelong learning on the entire island. Members include the University of Ulster, the Open College Network Northern Ireland and the Community Evaluation Northern Ireland
- The European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL) has resulted in a wide range of increased cross-border collaboration, for example AONTAS presented at the Northern Ireland closing event for the EAAL in 2017; Both jurisdictions ran their annual learners’ festivals together for the first time in March 2018, the Belfast Festival of Learning and the AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival took place over the same week (5th - 9th March) across the island, and a learning exchange between the CEOs of the Irish and the UK’s National Coordinators organisations was put in place
- The National Further Education and Training Learner Forum provides the 5Ns with a replicable model for responding to the deepening need to bring the voice of adult learners to the fore for decision-makers and education practitioners alike
- Positive collaborations with Education and Training Boards (ETBs) have resulted in AONTAS working directly with learners across the country to gather information on what is working and what can be improved in the Further Education and Training (FET) sector. The learning from delivering the National FET Learner Forum (NFLF) experience is being shared with colleagues in Northern Ireland
One of the main learning outcomes from the Conference on Friday 14th October in Belfast was that closer constructive collaboration has become a reality. Nations on every side of the Irish Sea are ready to set each other up to succeed. There is whole-sale agreement on the fact that the near future presents a host of challenges that can only be overcome collectively, and that any opportunities which may present themselves can only be seized upon together.
The power of adult and community education is how it positively transforms lives, brings communities together; as a holistic approach to lifelong learning and a vehicle for social inclusion it is purpose-built to bind us together during difficult periods. To fully share in the benefits of this transformative approach and truly empower each population England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must continue to address the educational inequalities that segregate communities and prevent every individual from reaching their full potential. Although this realisation may not be entirely new, there is increasing recognition and now new impetus to find a way forward that benefits the 5Ns. Simply put, further social, economic and political investment in adult and community education will help all Five Nations to innovate and adapt to the significant change everyone faces. Ultimately, The Borders, Boundaries & Bridges: Learning with our Neighbours Conference represents a very hopeful sign. The adult and community education sector working together to bring about positive changes in the lives of learners across the Irish Sea is no longer a collective aspiration; it is a mutual necessity and a very welcome inevitability.